This section of our web site will deal with an ever-evolving content of funeral and related issues. This area will soon be full text searchable and we hope will contain answers to any and all questions or concerns you might have. We will include a large number of questions that we receive through our "Ask the Director" section located on this site.
We believe that a better understanding of what is involved in the funeral process and the options available, will allow you to make a much more informed decision saving both confusion and compounded grief at the time of a loss.
This is probably the most often asked question of a funeral director.
Embalming and or some type of preservation, has been recorded in history as far back as the Egyptians. Back in those days, only the wealthy were embalmed or mummified, as it was known then. And history has shown that the Egyptian mummies were well preserved for thousands of years. Over the years the procedure has changed many times to what we now know as modern day embalming.
We use embalming today for two primary reasons--to allow adequate time between death and burial to observe social customs such as visitations and funeral services, and to prevent the spread of infection. Cosmetic work is often used for aesthetic reasons.
Modern embalming now consists primarily of removing all blood and gases from the body and the insertion of a disinfecting fluid. Small incisions are made in either the carotid or femoral artery and the jugular or femoral vein; the disinfecting fluid is injected through the carotid or femoral artery, and the blood is drained from the jugular or femoral vein.
If an autopsy is being performed, the vital organs are removed and immersed in an embalming fluid, and then replaced in the body, often surrounded by a preservative powder. If an autopsy is not performed, the embalmer aspirates fluids out of the body cavity by making a small incision near the navel and aspirating the bodily fluids. Most corpses in the USA and Canada are embalmed, though it is not required by law in most cases.
Embalming is primarily done to disinfect and preserve the remains. Disinfection is important for all who have to handle the remains, and for the public safety of our communities. In the years gone by, deaths due to Typhoid Fever, Malaria and other highly contagious diseases, put funeral directors and others who came into contact with the remains at a very high risk of contracting the same disease. Secondly, it has been a tradition to have a period of visitation of the remains. This is known as the wake or calling hours. Friends and family gather to view the remains and pay tribute to a family member or friend that has died. We gather to console the family on their loss, and to express sympathy to them. Without embalming, most remains become un-viewable within a short time. There are constant changes going on chemically and physically within the remains that change the looks and other qualities that we are accustomed to seeing. Embalming acts as a hindrance to this, and gives us the time needed to pay respect and express our sympathies.
When remains arrive at a funeral home, it is subjected to a series of steps before the actual preparation of remains are complete.
First, funeral home personnel lay the remains out on a stainless steel or porcelain embalming table, not unlike those used for an autopsy. They then remove all of the clothing off the remains, and either clean and return them to the next of kin or destroy them as they would do with any bedclothes that accompany the remains. Next, funeral home personnel carefully inventory any jewelry, usually taping or tying rings in place, so they do not disappear. Other jewelry and glasses are removed during embalming and then replaced on the remains.
There are several methods of closing the mouth. The prime consideration is to have the lips meet naturally. If the mouth is closed too loosely, the funeral director cannot produce a pleasant look, and if the mouth is closed too tightly, the area under the nose puckers, giving the upper lip a distinctly unnatural expression, sometimes appearing to scowl at the mourners. The funeral director will occasionally widen the lower lip to improve a face's appearance.
The funeral director cleans the remains surface with a disinfectant spray or solution by sponging it onto the remains. Next, the funeral director positions the remains. He relieves rigor mortis (the stiffening of muscle tissue due to chemical change)by flexing, bending and massaging the arms and legs. Then he or she will move the limbs to a suitable position, usually with the legs extended and arms at the sides. To begin the embalming process, which is the removal of blood, and replacing it with a formaldehyde based fluid, a small incision is usually made on the remains right side of the lower neck. It is at this position that two of the largest circulatory vessels are located. The carotid artery and the jugular vein.
Incisions are made in both vessels, and a tube connected to the embalming fluid pump is placed into the carotid artery, another tube is placed into the jugular vein, this is called a drain tube. The basic theory is to pump embalming fluid into the artery, and this will cause the blood to return through the veins and flow outside the remains for disposal. Approximately 3 gallons of a mixture of fluid and water are circulated through the remains for thorough disinfections and preservation to take place. In most cases, this will be the only point of injection of the embalming fluid. There are times when clots and other factors stop the flow of fluid through out the whole system, and at these times, other points of injection are necessary in order to do a complete and thorough embalming. There are many factors which go into the process, which cannot be explained here due to space limitations, but some of the factors that the funeral director must assess before embalming are the mode of death, the weight of the remains, the general overall condition of the remains, any disease associated with the remains, etc. These factors determine the types and strengths of fluids used, and the type of embalming necessary to complete the task. Many fluids have a slight dye added to them, which gives the remains a pinkish glow, and also acts as a guide for the funeral director, making it visible for him to see the fluid as it travels through the remains. This type of embalming is known as arterial embalming.
The next step, called cavity embalming, is the application of full strength fluid to the internal organs of the remains. A small incision is made just above the navel, and a long needle called a trocar is placed inside the abdominal and thoracic cavities of the remains. The funeral director aspirates both the abdominal and thoracic cavities. Aspiration is the removal of blood and other bodily fluids, through suction. A suction pump, either water or electric powered is used to remove these fluids. The trocar is then attached to a gravity fed system, which caused full strength fluid to be put into each organ, causing a more through disinfection and preservation of the remains. All incisions are then sutured closed.
The funeral director then washes the remains with cool water, often adding a soapy, germicidal solution containing bleach to kill viruses and bacteria. He or she then cleans the fingernails, uses solvents to remove any stains on the remains, and applies other chemicals to remove scaling on the hands and face. Blood in the hair is removed with washing and chemicals. The funeral director then washes the hair, funeral directors may do this either before or after embalming;
Hairdressing is normally done after embalming has been completed.
Any hair stubble on the remains is shaved with a razor. Facial hair and any visible nose hair are removed from all bodies, including those of women and children who may have excess facial hair because of medications they received, or because they have downy hair on their upper lips and cheeks. Ear hairs are sometimes removed and any unsightly facial hairs are removed or trimmed. Funeral directors must be careful with beards and mustaches, since once accidentally removed, they can be difficult to properly replace.
The fifth and final step is dressing and casketing of the remains. Using the clothes provided by the family, the funeral director proceeds to dress the remains. It is common to use a full set of clothing, including underwear, socks or stockings, and sometime even shoes if so desired. Once dressed the funeral director will begin the cosmetizing of the face and hands of the remains. Usually a special mortuary cosmetic is used, although store bought cosmetics may be used also. This is the true art of the funeral director. It is through the proper application of cosmetics, that a more life-like presentation will be made. Too much or too little cosmetics have a definite affect on the appearance of the remains. Proper coloring must be determined, and the cosmetics adjusted as such.
The final step in the preparation of the remains is to place the remains in a casket. Adjustments to clothing, touching up of hair and cosmetics and properly fixing the interior of the casket. This final step is usually very time consuming and must be done properly. This is the result of all the other work combined. The funeral director tries to pose both the head and hands in a life-like position, and finishes up his work by making everything look tidy and uniform.
This page, and the one on cremation, may be especially difficult for you, yet deciding between burial and cremation is one of the first choices you must make.
Disposition is the term used by the funeral industry to describe the final handling of the deceased's remains.
Although your initial decision for the disposition of the body is between burial and cremation, there are several variations on each.
Whichever choice you make, the body will eventually return to its natural elements.
Although the trend is moving toward cremation, the majority of North Americans still choose to bury their dead and to be buried themselves. Here are some reasons you might choose burial.
Decisions You Must Make If You Choose Burial
Decomposition of the body in the earth (after burial) is the slow oxidation of the body tissues.
Cremation, on the other hand, provides rapid oxidation.
No casket is legally required for cremation, just a simple container, which is strong enough to hold the body. This could be a box of rough boards, pressboard, or heavy cardboard.
Some crematories accept metal caskets; most require the container to be combustible.
If the body is cremated ...
In the United States, in 1972, only five percent chose cremation. That number had quintupled by 1999, with over 25% choosing cremation.
The Cremation Association of North America predicts that by 2010, that figure will rise to 36%.
In Canada, the rate is already over 42%; in Great Britain, 71%; and over 98% in Japan.
Those who choose cremation (for themselves or others) often hold the belief that it is better to honor the memory of the person, not the dead body.
Here are some other reasons you might choose cremation:
Perhaps you are worried about the use of valuable land for cemetery space, or believe it is wrong to fill the ground with materials that won't erode ... metal coffins and concrete vaults.
Selecting cremation does not mean, however, that you will have an inexpensive funeral.
You might still choose an expensive casket and/or a viewing, and/or decide to have the cremated remains buried in the ground or placed in a columbarium. These choices can bring your costs up to those of a traditional funeral.
Decisions You Must Make If You Choose Cremation
Some jurisdictions have laws prohibiting the scattering of remains; others require a permit. Ask your funeral director.
Also ask if there are any firms in your area that specialize in unique ways of distributing the remains, such as a plane to spread them over a mountain, or a ship to scatter them at sea.
Think of places that were especially loved by the deceased, close to home or far away. You can walk in the woods, by a favorite lake, or on the old family farm.
Be sure to ask permission if you want to use private property.
What about using the remains to create new life, by planting a tree? Some survivors choose to mix the remains with the soil in flowerbeds and rose gardens at home. Every time the roses bloom, you will be reminded of your loved one.
If you decide to do this, however, consider what will happen if, some day, you move away.
A viewing means to have an open casket.
A visitation is when the body is laid out in the casket (which may be open or closed) before the service so that mourners may come to "visit."
A visitation offers a chance for people to "pay their final respects" to the dead person.
Just as important, the visitation can be a time for mourners to meet and console each other in a more informal setting than at the funeral.
You can schedule a visitation for as little as half an hour on the day of the service, or it can last for several days before the service.
The visitation can be restricted to just close friends and family, or be open to the public. You can even have a combination of private and public hours.
As part of the visitation, you can arrange a formal ceremony, an informal ceremony, or none at all. The formal ceremony might be a brief service with the saying of the rosary (for Catholics) or prayers for the dead led by a mourner or member of the clergy.
The term wake is sometimes used to describe the reception after the funeral or memorial service.
Traditionally, though, a wake means the friends and family keeping watch by the body before it is safely buried - especially through the night. (Hence the term "wake.") In some families, there is much drinking and feasting and storytelling during the vigil.
For those who are comfortable with it, an informal storytelling session can be a wonderful way to remember the person.
The stories don't all have to be solemn, nor do they all have to show the person as a saint. We often love people as much for their flaws as for their strengths.
Remember, too, that laughter is as much a sign of strong emotion as tears or anger.
And if the person had a good sense of humor, there are bound to be some funny stories.
This sharing can be a rich and powerful experience. You might even want to tape record this event to listen to again later.
A memorial service is a service without the body present and can vary in ceremony and procedures according to the community and religious affiliations. Some families prefer public visitations followed by a private or graveside service with a memorial service later at the church or funeral home.
Because the body is not present at the memorial, disposition may take place either before or after the service. You can hold a memorial service instead of a funeral, or in addition to it. For instance, you might have a funeral in the town where the person lived and died, and a memorial service later in the town where he/she grew up.
A funeral is so much more than a way to say goodbye; it's an opportunity to celebrate the life of someone special.
Today, a funeral can be as unique as the individual who is being honored. From simple touches like displaying personal photographs to events created around a favorite pastime, funerals can reflect any aspect of a person's life and personality.
Following are questions you can use to help you decide how to personalize a service:
Often people have hobbies that become more than just a casual pastime. Their activity could have been as much a part of who they were as their smile. Why not showcase that important part of their life during the funeral?
Incorporating a hobby can be as simple as:
By adding these or other personal touches to a funeral, the service becomes a reflection of the person's life and personality.
One way to enhance a funeral is by bringing a piece of the person's personality to life. Consider what made that person special, what made them who they were? Then find ways to link their individuality to traditional aspects of a funeral service.
As an example, an avid cowboy or cowgirl may want to ride of into the sunset one last time. Tasteful ways to honor their wish include:
Other themes you may want to consider:
Many people take great pride in their career. Perhaps they dedicated a lifetime to a profession that transformed into more than just a job. If this holds true for your loved one, you may want to consider ways to include their professional life into their funeral service.
Following are two examples of how you could incorporate a profession into a service:
For a teacher:
For a fire person/police officer:
Through organized religion or personal beliefs, most people have some sense of spirituality in their life. Often those values are from the very core of who the person was in life. Therefore, you may feel it is important to incorporate the individual's sense of spirituality into their funeral service.
Following are ideas on how to incorporate spirituality into a funeral service:
For additional ideas on personalizing a funeral, please contact your funeral director.